Study on ex-CFLers shows 'shocking' severity of brain changes from football

Study on ex-CFLers shows 'shocking' severity of brain changes from football

Former Saskatchewan Roughrider Bob Macoritti never let any of his children play football.

Hockey was also out of the question. His two daughters took up figureskating; his two sons, "everything else but football and hockey."

"It was just keeping them away from contact sports that have a long list of players that have had to retire because of concussions," he said.

Macoritti, a placekicker with the Roughriders from 1976-80, was one of 22 former CFL players recruited by the Hamilton Spectator and McMaster University for a study comparing the brains of football players with age-matched control subjects who had never had concussions.

He told CBC Saskatchewan's Afternoon Edition that he joined the study to contribute to the research on concussions but "also for my future benefit hopefully to find out exactly what was going on."

"I'm 66 so there are issues," he said.

"I wasn't sure if they were age-related normal issues or they were related more to what has happened to me in the past."

'Everyone is a bit forgetful'

He described a conversation he once had with a fellow player back in the day, who said he always got headaches during training camps. The player told him the headaches always went away once he hit enough to make his brain swell and "fit his cranium better."

"I said to myself, that cannot be good. And this was in 1976."

As he got older, he said, "I could see some of the symptoms I was having, and I was reacting to them, I was trying to do things that would be better for my brain."

But "everyone is a bit forgetful," he said, and he wasn't sure how much of what he was experiencing could be chalked up to his football career.

Still, he was surprised by how stark the conclusions of the Spectator study were. So were the McMaster researchers who performed the tests and analysed the results.

"The only word for it, honestly, was 'shocking,'" said McMaster's Dr. John Connelly.

He said he was taken aback by the severity and the extent of the changes found in the brains of the former football players.

"We had about two thirds of our players show very significant brain changes," he said.

Another researcher on the study, Dr. Luciano Minuzzi, looked at brain structure using MRI scans. He found significant cortical thinning among the football players.

"He thought he must have made a mistake so he did it several times, the results were so shocking to him," said Connelly.

Automatic pilot

Connelly himself looked at brain function using EEG tests. He said the ex-CFLers showed "reduced amplitudes of brain responses."

"What that means is there are fewer brain cells that are involved in a particular function. So they're doing things in life, they're getting by in life but they're simply on something almost like automatic pilot.

"What we also found is they had delayed latencies in a lot of their brain responses. So it took the brain longer, basically, to conduct information around itself."

Connelly said comparing the results with the age-matched control subjects showed the changes were not caused by normal aging.

"I tend to be quite conservative in terms of interpreting data but I think the only logical explanation is that it's football. There is no other way to explain it."

What needs more research, he said, is what makes the minority of players who didn't show the brain changes different.

"What are the factors that, in a sense, protect some of these players and some of the people suffering concussions?"

That could mean looking at pediatric concussion patients to try and find similarities and perhaps a way to predict who's more at risk at being affected the way the CFL players were "because that might determine what they want to do with their life," he said.

"People should know what the situation is so they can make informed judgments."